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Iraqi Christians still need America's help, former congressman says

Arlington, Va., Aug 23, 2017 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A recent trip to Iraq drove home the perilous state of Christians and Yazidis there, a former US Congressman from Virginia has recounted in a new report.

“If nothing is done, I believe that we will see the end of ancient Christianity in Iraq within a few years,” former Congressman Frank R. Wolf has said in a report from the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

“Currently, the population is getting dangerously close to dipping below the critical mass needed for these Christians to maintain their long-term presence in their ancestral homeland,” he said. “If this trend is allowed to continue, the Christian population will follow that of the Jewish population, which has decreased from 150,000 individuals in 1948 to just 10 people today.”

While there are signs of hope, such as the return of 600 families to the Plains of Nineveh, Wolf said “bold action” is required by the U.S. and the West to address the situation. The loss of Christianity in the region would further destabilize the Middle East and threaten U.S. national security, he warned.

In March 2016 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution recognizing the acts of the Islamic State group against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

“In 2003, the Christians in Iraq numbered 1.5 million,” Wolf said. “Today, that number has decreased to what most estimate is 250,000, although some argue the number is down to 150,000.”

The former Congressman, a Virginia Republican, in August had traveled to Iraq with a delegation including Christian Solidarity Worldwide to examine the situation facing Christians and Yazidis.

Concerns are growing that many minority communities will be unable to return home because of the destruction. There are also growing tensions among the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and non-state actors over the territories that are home to Christians.

The Christian communities doubt their security can be guaranteed. Both Arabs and Kurds have marginalized their communities in the past.

The Islamic State group destroyed many biblical and Christian sites, including the town of Nimrod, Wolf said. Every single cross on the churches of Mosul was broken. He cited the role of Iraq in the Bible as the home of the Patriarch Abraham, Rebecca, and Jacob’s sons. The Prophet Daniel lived there for most of his life.

“Despite this, the Christian community in Iraq has been largely forgotten by many in the West,” said Wolf.

The former congressman’s report recounted his delegation’s conversations with several Christians.

A Christian family who had fled from their town of Bartella, near Mosul, now living as internally displaced persons in a camp near Duhok, was split on whether to return home. The father said that Christians are peaceful and willing to forgive. His wife said she wanted to leave for Australia or elsewhere “for the sake of my children.” She was so concerned for the safety of her 15-year-old daughter that she had kept her out of school since the family was displaced.

Another Christian, a doctoral student who fled Islamic State militants when they captured Mosul, said he would like to return home but does not trust many of his neighbors. They considered him and his families to be infidels even before the militants arrived.

“We have no guarantees. Everyone is using us - we are caught in the middle. We asked for peace, but we cannot live with the discrimination,” he said, according to Wolf.

Then there was the case of a Christian woman he called Maryam. She was sold as a sex slave over 20 times, raped hundreds of times, and otherwise beaten and abused. In an escape attempt, she jumped out of a third story window and broke her leg.

When she was finally rescued, her family and community shunned her due to the practices of an “honor culture.”

“Now she is afraid to walk on the street in her own community,” Wolf said.

The delegation also met with a young boy and his disabled mother whom Islamic State fighters threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam. They pretended to convert in order to survive, but then the boy was then forced to join the Islamic State. Though he and his disabled mother were able to escape, they cannot return home because they will not be trusted.

Similar stories resulted when the delegation also visited the Yazidi people, an ethnic and religious group with about 600,000 members in Iraq out of 1 million worldwide. Under Islamic State militants, the Yazidis suffered mass murder, rape, enslavement, displacement, and the destruction of their homeland. About 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still in Islamic State captivity.

Few of those who fled their homes have returned, due to the security situation. A potential offensive against Islamic State could send fleeing militants through their homeland.

Some Yazidi women and young girls are committing suicide after victimization by Islamic State. Many lack proper care and also suffer the effects of an honor culture that estranges them from their families, reduces their marriage prospects, and sees psychological treatment as taboo.

Wolf offered several policy recommendations. He said the Senate should pass the Iraq and Syria Genocide Accountability Act, which authorizes and directs the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide funds for humanitarian aid to religious and ethnic minorities affected by war crimes and genocide. It also authorizes support for criminal investigations in Iraq of Islamic State members and perpetrators of war crimes.

He called for a fresh assessment of the situation in Iraq and for an international coalition to secure the Nineveh Plains, possibly including a U.S. base or a joint-training base. He suggested that security restrictions on embassy and consular employees limit their ability to learn about local Iraqis which hinders their own policy judgement. Local contractors, then, should move freely throughout the region to survey the situation and develop a better strategy.

Wolf advocated pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to implement reforms to provide equal citizenship, security, and economic opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities.

He charged that Iran has “imperial ambitions” in the area and could “become a direct threat to Israel and to US regional interests and national security”, as well as inciting Sunni-Shia sectarian violence.

He stressed the need for unity among Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups, which are now fragmented by their alliances with the Iraqi government or with Iraqi Kurdistan. The diaspora of these communities also must be united, said the former congressman.

A brief history of the Catholic Church's fight against racism

Washington D.C., Aug 23, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Catholic bishops from around the country recently condemned the white nationalism at rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.

But what might be lesser known is that the Church has spoken out against racism through the centuries, and still calls for conversion from it.

“If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said after the Charlottesville rallies.

White nationalists had held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. from Aug. 11-12, to protest the city's planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

White supremacists from various extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis participated in torch-lit rallies on Friday night and a daytime rally on Saturday, chanting racist messages like “Jew will not replace us,” and “blood and soil,” a historically white supremacist slogan used by the Nazi Party in the days of Hitler.

A diverse coalition of counter-protesters, from religious leaders to members of “Black Lives Matter” to the anarchist group Antifa, formed around the white supremacist rally.

Violence broke out between the rally and the counter-protest, culminating with a 20 year-old man from Ohio driving a car into the counter-protest killing one woman and injuring 19. The man was eventually charged with second-degree murder.

In the wake of the racist rally, Catholic bishops spoke out against violence but also specifically condemned racism, including a joint statement by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the bishops' domestic justice and human development committee, condemning “the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism.”

From the earliest days of the Church, Christian teaching has opposed the promotion of one person above another because of their genetic or ethnic background.

In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul wrote that “through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3:26-28).”

As the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace explained in its 1988 document on racism, “The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society,” early in the history of the Church, distinctions were made between people on basis of religion, not race.

That began to change with the discovery of the “New World,” the letter said, as nations colonizing the Americas tried to “justify” the killing and enslavement of indigenous peoples with a “racist theory.”

Pope Eugene IV issued a papal bull in 1435, Sicut Dudum, condemning the enslavement of African Christians in the Canary Islands, a year after his bull Creator Omnium threatened excommunication for those enslaving Christians. Thirty years later, in Regimini Gregis, Pope Sixtus IV excommunicated those aiding in the transport of Christian slaves from Africa.

Dominican Priest Bartolome de las Casas initially helped start the slave trade in the Spanish colonies to relieve the mistreatment of the Indians there in the 1500s, but later decried what he called the “spine-chilling barbarity” directed at indigenous persons by Spanish Conquistadors in his 1542 letter “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” He actively worked to stop the slave trade that he once helped.

Pope Paul III, in his 1535 encyclical Sublimus Dei, issued a strong condemnation of theories that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were sub-human. He said that any argument that the natives were “created for our service” and were “incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith” was the work of “the enemy of the human race, who opposes all good needs in order to bring men to destruction.”

He added that “we consider” that “the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.”

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade once again and forbade Christians from partaking in it. He wrote that “we warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor.”

However, more sophisticated racist ideologies were hatched beginning in the 18th century, the 1988 Vatican letter explained. These theories tried to base racial superiority in science. Yet as white nationalism and other racist ideologies became the source of political and moral disagreement in societies throughout the world, the Popes and the Vatican continued to condemn racial discrimination and racist ideologies.

In the 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI condemned the Nazi government and its “so-called myth of race and blood.”

“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds,” Pope Pius XI wrote.

He also called out the creation of a state that defines itself “within the narrow limits of a single race,” and said that only “superficial minds” could fall into believing such concepts.

His successor Pius XII, in his 1939 encyclical Summi Pontificatus, decried these racial ideologies as one of the “errors which derive from the poisoned source of religious and moral agnosticism.”

“The first of these pernicious errors, widespread today, is the forgetfulness of that law of human solidarity and charity which is dictated and imposed by our common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men, to whatever people they belong, and by the redeeming Sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ on the Altar of the Cross to His Heavenly Father on behalf of sinful mankind,” he said.

Later popes, from Bl. Pope Paul VI to St. Pope John Paul II to the current Pope Francis, have all decried racial discrimination, especially discrimination against one’s fellow countrymen.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document of 1988 stated that “racism and racist acts must be condemned.”

“Respect for every person and every race is respect for basic rights, dignity and fundamental equality,” the document stated. It clarified that this respect for all races “does not mean erasing cultural differences,” but that “it is important to educate to a positive appreciation of the complementary diversity of peoples.”

The document also pointed to the anti-Semitism that led to the horrors of the Holocaust, and the necessity for a moral call from the Church against racism even in areas with laws against racial discrimination.

The U.S. Bishops have issued statements against the racism found in many areas of American society, both overt and structural remnants from the era of slavery and of Jim Crow and segregation.

In their 1979 document “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the bishops decried racism not only as the sin “that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race,” but as a sin that denies “the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.”

Individual bishops and groups of bishops have also written periodically in response to events motivated by racism or revealing the deep racial wounds still within our society. In response to the events last weekend, Bishops around the country – including the U.S. Bishops' conference as a group – decried the use of Nazi and racist symbolism.

“Racism is a poison of the soul,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput, of Philadelphia in response to the rally. “It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.”

Bishops disappointed as Trump administration ends migration program for minors

Washington D.C., Aug 23, 2017 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After the Trump administration ended a parole program for young migrants from Central America, the head of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee expressed his disappointment.

“In terminating the parole option, the Administration has unnecessarily chosen to cut off proven and safe alternatives to irregular and dangerous migration for Central American children, including those previously approved for parole who are awaiting travel in their home countries,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops' conference's migration committee, stated Aug. 21.

The Central American Minors parole program was established in 2014, at the height of the spike of unaccompanied migrant children coming to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America.

While the number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. had risen significantly beginning in the 2012 fiscal year, the number ballooned to its all-time peak of more than 50,000 in FY 2014. The number fell almost in half in the next year due to Mexico’s apprehensions of minors, but it again spiked to almost 47,000 in FY 2016.

The parole program was established with the intent of giving “at risk” children from Central America who were not granted refugee status a safe and legal avenue to the United States to reunite with their parents.

Through the process, those parents lawfully present in the United States would apply for their children to be considered for parole, the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman explained in a report last year. Children denied refugee status could also be automatically considered for the parole program. They would be vetted by U.S. security and could lawfully apply for entry into the U.S.

However, the report had brought up concerns with the program, such as “lengthy processing times,” lack of protections “for particularly vulnerable qualifying children,” and “restrictive eligibility criteria.”

The program was ended last Wednesday. Children who received “conditional approval” for entry into the U.S., but had not yet made the journey, would no longer be accepted. More than 2,700 minors had won “conditional approval” to come to the U.S. but could no longer enter, the Washington Post reported.

Additionally, more than 1,400 minors living in the U.S. through the program would not see their status renewed and would have to find another legal avenue of applying for re-parole or for another immigration status to stay in the U.S., the Post reported.

Minors from Central America can still apply for parole outside the program, but it “will only be issued on a case-by-case basis and only where the applicant demonstrates an urgent humanitarian or a significant public benefit reason for parole and that applicant merits a favorable exercise of discretion,” the administration announced.

“Any alien may request parole to travel to the United States, but an alien does not have a right to parole.”

The program was critical in helping vulnerable young migrants fleeing violence or hardships in their home countries to reunite with their families in the U.S., Bishop Vasquez said.

“Pope Francis has called on us to protect migrant children, noting that ‘among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group’,” he said.

Many came from three countries in particular – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – all of which are among the worst in the world for homicide rates.

Gang violence in particular forced many young people to flee their homes for the U.S., rather than be coerced into joining gangs or be killed back home. The journey north through Mexico to the U.S. border was a dangerous one, with harsh desert conditions, drug trafficking, and hostile smugglers all posing threats to children.

“The Church, with its global presence, learns of this violence and persecution every day, in migrant shelters and in repatriation centers. We know that children must be protected,” Bishop Vasquez said.

While everything must be done to ensure the children remain at home, they must have the opportunity to move elsewhere if they have no other choice, he said.

The program “provided a legal and organized way for children to migrate to the United States and reunify with families,” he said. “Terminating the parole program will neither promote safety for these children nor help our government regulate migration.”

Pope Francis General Audience: English summary

(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis continued his catechesis on Christian hope at his Wednesday General Audience in the Paul VI Hall.

Please find below the official English-language summary:

Dear Brothers and Sisters: As we continue to explore the virtue of Christian hope, we discover in the final pages of the Bible that the ultimate destination of our Christian pilgrimage will be the heavenly Jerusalem.  And on this pilgrimage we encounter the God of surprises who treats us with infinite tenderness, like a father welcoming his children home after a long and difficult journey.  Even if many experience life as a prolonged period of suffering – think of the fearful faces of those haunted by violence and war – still there is a Father who weeps with infinite compassion for his children, and who waits to console them with a very different future.  We believe that neither death nor hatred have the last word, for we Christians see, with great hope, a larger horizon: the Kingdom of God, where all evil is banished forever.  It is Jesus himself who is the light of this new future, and who even now accompanies us on our way.  Creation did not stop on the sixth day of Genesis, because God is continually looking after us, always ready to pronounce his blessing: “Behold, I make all things new! (Rev 21:5)”.

(from Vatican Radio)

As Florida execution approaches, bishops urge governor to take pro-life path

Tallahassee, Fla., Aug 22, 2017 / 04:27 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- An imminent execution scheduled for this week is the wrong path, said Florida’s Catholic bishops, urging the governor of the state to intervene.

“We hold that if non-lethal means are available to keep society safe from an aggressor, then authority must limit itself to such,” said Michael B. Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. He called life without parole “an alternative and severe sentence.”

Sheedy’s comments came in an Aug. 21 letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott asking him to commute the sentence of Mark James Asay.

Asay is scheduled to be executed Thursday, Aug. 24. He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death for the 1987 murders of Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell in Jacksonville, Florida.

Florida Supreme Court justices lifted a stay on Asay’s execution in December, the Miami Herald reports.

Sheedy said the murders were “heinous” and “call out for justice and should be condemned.” However, the 18 months since Florida’s last execution have made more apparent the “inconsistent and arbitrary” application of the death penalty, he added.

He pointed to the resentencing hearings given to defendants whose death sentences were finalized after June 2002 after the system was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016. Asay, however, has been denied legal relief.

Sheedy invoked the governor’s pro-life stand on abortion and other issues, saying the death penalty too deserves the application of pro-life principles.

“We applaud your leadership as a pro-life governor as it relates to protecting the unborn and promoting human dignity,” said his letter. “Each human life has a God-given dignity that is neither earned nor lost through our actions, even those that have caused great harm. We seek a state that is unequivocally and consistently pro-life, protecting human life in all stages and in all circumstances.”

The letter voiced prayers for the governor, for the condemned man, and for the crime victims and their loved ones.

“We pray for all involved in this tragic situation: you, as the final authority in the state over Mr. Asay’s life or death; the condemned and his conversion guided by his spiritual advisors; and the victims and their loved ones,” Sheedy said.

Parishes across Florida scheduled Masses and prayer vigils for the victims and the aggressor, their families, for society, and for an end to the death penalty, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops says. At least two Catholic radio stations will take part in the prayers, including a program on Radio Paz 830 AM in the Miami archdiocese.

 

Arlington priest reveals former KKK membership, takes voluntary leave of absence

Arlington, Va., Aug 22, 2017 / 02:57 pm (CNA).- An Arlington priest revealed Monday that he was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan before converting while in prison, and has asked for a temporary leave of absence from ministry.

The Diocese of Arlington released a statement saying that Fr. William Aitcheson, a parochial vicar at St. Leo Catholic Church in Fairfax, Va., wrote an article in the diocesan newspaper “with the intention of telling his story of transformation” from being a Klan member to abandoning his racist beliefs and becoming a Catholic priest.

“He left that life behind him 40 years ago and since journeyed in faith to eventually become a Catholic priest,” the diocese said.

“He voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well-being of the Church and parish community, and the request was approved.”

In the wake of the recent white nationalist rally at Charlottesville, Va. on August 11-12, Fr. Aitcheson wrote in the Arlington Catholic Herald of his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan and “despicable” acts like burning a cross on someone else’s lawn and writing threatening letters. His article was entitled, “Moving from hate to love with God’s grace.”

According to the Washington Post report of Aitcheson’s arrest in 1977, he was an “exalted cyclops” in the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and was charged with six cross-burnings in Prince George’s County, Md., as well as one count of making bomb threats and two counts of making pipe bombs.

The New York Times reported that he was convicted of criminal misdemeanor for burning a cross in the yard of a black family in College Park, Md. and was sentenced to 90 days in prison.

In his article for the Herald, Fr. Aitcheson said that although he was baptized and raised a Catholic, he did not practice the faith as a young man. But after leaving the “anti-Catholic” Klan, he came back to the Church, “a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.”

He entered the seminary and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, Nev. in 1988. He came to the Arlington Diocese in 1993. The Arlington Diocese stated that “there have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Fr. Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington.”

“While 40 years have passed, I must say this: I’m sorry. To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry,” he wrote in the Arlington Catholic Herald. “I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington stated that “while Fr. Aitcheson’s past with the Ku Klux Klan is sad and deeply troubling, I pray that in our current political and social climate his message will reach those who support hate and division, and inspire them to a conversion of heart.”

“Our Lord is ready to help them begin a new journey, one where they will find peace, love, and mercy. The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God,” he said.

While we believe in God’s forgiveness, we should not forget the sins of our past, Fr. Aitcheson wrote.

“Our actions have consequences and while I firmly believe God forgave me – as he forgives anyone who repents and asks for forgiveness – forgetting what I did would be a mistake,” he said.

The recent rallies of white nationalists in Charlottesville, held to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, included Klan members and neo-Nazis, and featured racist chants. On August 12, a 20-year-old man from Ohio drove a car into the counter-protest to the rallies, killing one and injuring 19.

“The images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget,” Fr. Aitcheson said of the rallies.

He wrote that the hate manifested in the rallies “should bring us to our knees in prayer.” Catholics should condemn racism “at every opportunity” and pray for its victims, and pray for the conversion of those holding racist beliefs, he said.

“If there are any white supremacists reading this, I have a message for you: you will find no fulfillment in this ideology. Your hate will never be satisfied and your anger will never subside,” he wrote. “I encourage you to find peace and mercy in the only place where it is authentic and unending: Jesus Christ.”

 

This church sheltered 800 people during the Barcelona terror attack

Barcelona, Spain, Aug 22, 2017 / 02:26 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid the horror and chaos of the Aug. 17 terrorist attack in Barcelona, more than 800 people found shelter in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Pi.

The Gothic church, situated in the historic center of Barcelona, is next to one of the streets exiting Las Ramblas, the popular tourist area where a van plowed into a crowd on Aug. 17, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100.

Jordi Sacasas, the basilica's archivist, told CNA that he was with the church sacristan and several other people in the basilica archives when the attack took place. From the balcony of the archives, they could see people stampeding.

“When we saw this, we went down to the church doors and brought in those fleeing. Police orders were for people to take shelter, and as the basilica has a large entrance, we could offer shelter to a lot of people,” he said.

Once the doors were closed, the basilica employees worked to calm the terrified masses. “We were providing information in French, English and Italian over the church's sound system, since the majority of the people were tourists and we had a person who could speak several languages…We were providing information that the regional government and the police were sending us, so there would be clear information.”

Local businesses also showed their solidarity with those taking refuge inside the church, offering food and drink during the three-hour lockdown before the police allowed people to leave the area.

“One bakery almost emptied its shelves bringing us bread, sandwiches. A cafe brought us water. What was impressive and so moving was the solidarity of people in such dramatic moments,” Sacasas said.

Church employees also worked to help those who were injured from falling in the stampede that resulted from the attack.

“We cared for the injured who were hurt as they fled, especially the older people, because the emergency services were overwhelmed with more serious injuries,” he said.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Pi, built in the 14th century, has a long history of welcoming those in need. It has previously opened its doors to immigrants, offering them use of its facilities.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Aug. 17 attack. Police said they had shot and killed the suspected driver of the van, while also arresting several other individuals believed to be possibly involved in a local terror ring. One of those arrested said that the larger plot had involved the bombing of several major monuments, including the iconic Sagrada Familia basilica.

 

Michigan nun killed in hit-and-run remembered for her faith

Saginaw, Mich., Aug 22, 2017 / 11:46 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Michigan nun Sister Joseph Marie Ruessman of the Alma Sisters of Mercy, who was killed in a hit-and-run on Thursday, was remembered for her fidelity to Christ, tireless hard work in her community, and her joyful laugh.

“I think her faith and her relationship with Christ was everything,” said Sister Mary Sarah Macht, RSA, of the Alma Sisters of Mercy in the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, according to the Morning Sun.

“She’s a person who is the epitome of the person who works behind the scenes. Just because she was quiet, doesn’t mean she wasn’t sharp. She was just a very fine lawyer,” Sister Macht said, recalling that Sister Joseph Marie had the “best” laugh.

Sister Joseph Marie, 64, was last seen the night before she died, on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at St. Mary's of the Assumption Cathedral in Saginaw, where many members of the Alma Sisters of Mercy were attending the final vows of fellow sisters.

The next morning, she was riding her bike around 7 a.m. on Michigan Avenue, when a car hit Sister Joseph Marie and fled the scene. Pieces from the vehicle were found next to her body.

She was discovered alive but unresponsive not long after the incident by pedestrians, who then called 9-11. Police and EMS workers arrived around 7:20, and she was then transported to MidMichigan Medical Center.

The police are now investigating the event as a hit-and-run and are offering a $500 reward for relevant information that would lead to the person responsible for driving the car.

Sister Joseph Marie died from sustained injuries later that night around 8 p.m., surrounded by members of her religious order and family, who prayed and sang hymns next to her hospital bed.

“Any time, to be with someone during that process, is a profound experience,” said Sister Macht. “This is the way He called her home, and we had the privilege of being with her in that.”

Sister Joseph Marie’s funeral took place on Monday at Our Lady of Grace Chapel in Alma, and she was laid to rest at the cemetery of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in DeWitt.

Top Vatican diplomat focuses on Ukraine, Middle East in Russia talks

Moscow, Russia, Aug 22, 2017 / 10:23 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The need to find peaceful solutions to global conflicts, particularly in Ukraine and the Middle East, has taken a front seat so far in the Vatican Secretary of State's meetings with Russian government and Russian Orthodox Church officials.

In a statement following his Aug. 22 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the meetings so far have been intense, and offered his thanks to the Russian authorities for their cordial welcome to the country.

He met with Lavrov on the second day of his Aug. 21-24 visit to Russia, which marks the first time a Vatican Secretary of State has traveled to Moscow in 18 years. It also falls 18 months after Pope Francis' meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana.

While conversation with Lavrov touched on several issues, Cardinal Parolin said that when it came to topics of international interest, he first of all reiterated the Holy See's desire to find “just and lasting solutions” for the global conflicts raging in “the Middle East, Ukraine and various other regions of the world.”

“If, in such dramatic situations, the Holy See is more directly active in the effort to promote initiatives aimed at alleviating the suffering of peoples, at the same time it clearly expresses the appeal that the common good prevail; principally justice, lawfulness, the truth of facts and the abstention of manipulating them, and the safe and dignified living conditions for civilian populations,” Cardinal Parolin said.

He stressed that the Holy See does not, nor can it, affiliate itself with any particular political position. As such, he reminded the parties of their duty “to strictly adhere to the principals of international law.”

Respect for these laws, he said, “is indispensable for the protection of world order and peace, for the recovery of a healthy atmosphere of mutual respect in international relations.”

On the situation in the Middle East, Cardinal Parolin said that while the two states have different approaches to the issue, they share a “strong concern for the situation of Christians in some countries of the Middle East and the African continent, as well as in some other regions of the world.”

He also voiced the Holy See's concern for religious freedom, specifically that it is “preserved in whatever state and whatever political situation.”

Discussion also touched on bilateral relations between Russia and the Holy See, and special attention was paid to the positive experiences the countries share in terms of collaboration between scientific and medical institutions.

To this end, both Cardinal Parolin and Lavrov affirmed their commitment to continuing this collaboration, and the two signed a joint agreement to waive visa requirements for individuals who travel with diplomatic passports.

Concern was also raised for the life of the Catholic Church in Russia, specifically in regards to the ability to obtain working residence permits for non-Russian religious who come to serve in the country, as well as the return of Church property which is “necessary for the pastoral care of Catholics in the country.”

Cardinal Parolin said that when these issues were voiced, Lavrov showed “great attention to the solution to these problems and the desire to follow them.”

He met with Lavrov a day after speaking with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, whose role as President of the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate makes him more or less number-two in the Russian Orthodox Church.

During the discussion, concerns surrounding conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East also came up as major talking points.  

Attention was immediately brought to the “tragic situation of Christians in the Middle East,” which Metropolitan Hilarion called “one of the most burning problems today.”

Reference was made to the efforts on the part of the Moscow patriarchate to provide humanitarian aid to suffering populations in Syria, as well as an ad hoc working group that has been established to help broker greater cooperation with the Presidential Commission for Cooperation with Religious Associations, and includes several representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, as well as Muslim communities and several other Christian confessions.

Both parties agreed that in order to reach a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis “it is necessary to put an end to terrorism in the territory of Syria,” and only after peace has been reached should “its political future be determined.”

The two voiced their agreement on the need to consult each other more often on the Middle Eastern crisis, and to continue cooperation in providing humanitarian aid to the area.

On Ukraine, Metropolitan Hilarion took issue with several bills he said are aimed at “discriminating against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and which are still on the agenda for Ukraine's parliament. He thanked Cardinal Parolin and the Holy See for supporting the stand taken by the Moscow patriarchate on the issue.

Concern was raised by Metropolitan Hilarion regarding what he called “cases of politicized statements and aggressive actions” on the part of some members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

However, he and Cardinal Parolin were able to voice a shared conviction that “politics should not interfere in Church life,” and stressed the important role that Churches in Ukraine play in terms of peacemaking and in helping to “establish a civic accord in the country.”

Discussion between the two closed after touching on various opportunities for greater bilateral collaboration in the cultural and educational fields.

Following his meeting with Lavrov this morning, Cardinal Parolin is set to visit with Patriarch Kirill later on in the evening, and the two will hold a brief press conference afterward.

On Aug. 23, the last day of his visit, Cardinal Parolin will head to Sochi for an official meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting marks the last official event on the cardinal's schedule before his return to Rome Aug. 24.

N. Ireland high court: No European right to 'gay marriage'

Belfast, Northern Ireland, Aug 22, 2017 / 09:54 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Northern Ireland’s High Court has rejected two legal challenges that sought to recognize same-sex unions as marriages, saying it is a matter for the legislature.

Justice John O'Hara said that European law allows governments to introduce “gay marriage,” but does not require it.

Lawyers for several couples had argued that the Northern Ireland law violates Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights and denied respect for their clients’ private and family lives, BBC News reports.

Any further action is affected by the political crisis in Stormont, the Northern Ireland legislature. A power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party collapsed in January 2017, after more than 10 years of joint rule between nationalist and unionist politicians.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigned in protest Jan. 10 over allegations that First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party mishandled overspending on a renewable energy heating program.  

The collapse triggered fresh elections.

Ahead of the elections, Northern Ireland’s Catholic bishops issued a February statement stressing the importance of recognizing marriage as the union of one man and one woman, among other issues. To recognize other relationships as the same thing undercuts the importance of the biological bond and natural ties between parents and children, they said.

They cited Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” which said same-sex unions are not the same as marriage and are not analogous to God’s plan for marriage and the family.

In the debate over restoring the power-sharing agreement, Sinn Fein has demanded that the Democratic Unionist Party allow same-sex marriage to be recognized, the Belfast Telegraph says.

Northern Ireland had introduced same-sex partnerships in 2005, the first place in the U.K. to do so.

The first couple to contact such a partnership, Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close, were among the parties to one of the cases before the High Court. The other parties to their case were Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, the second couple to contract a same-sex partnership in Northern Ireland.

Close said their children were being treated differently as a result of the court’s decision.

A second case under consideration involved an anonymous couple who had contracted a same-sex union recognized as a marriage in England, and wanted it legally recognized in Northern Ireland.

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly had voted five times on whether to recognize the unions as marriages. The fifth vote, held in November 2015, resulted in the first time such unions were approved, by a vote of 53-52.

The Democratic Unionist Party then used a Stormont veto, called a petition of concern, to block the motion and prevent the law from changing. It cited the need to protect traditional marriage.

Paula Bradshaw, an assembly member for the Alliance Party, said both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party had rejected her party’s proposal to reform the petition of concern.

Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democrat and Labour Party, was among those who voiced opposition the court’s decision.